Last week Google made a pretty stark announcement. Google reported that it had achieved something called “quantum supremacy”. As menacing and totalitarian as that may seem, it’s not quite the sinister achievement it sounds like. In fact, IBM isn’t quite sure this achievement is even all too impressive. So what in the world is this quantum supremacy and why does it even matter to anyone?
To explain, let’s review what quantum supremacy is. Many computer enthusiasts are well aware of what a quantum computer is. At the risk of preaching to the choir, I’ll still explain. A classical computer, the ones that run almost the entirety of computation, operate using the classic laws of physics while a quantum computer operates using quantum laws of physics. In essence, this gives quantum computers a much higher computational power with the ability to solve very complex problems very quickly. Quantum supremacy is when one of those quantum computers achieves something no classical computer can.
On October 23rd Google did just that. Their quantum computer called “Sycamore” solved a particularly hard problem in 200 seconds. A problem they claimed that IBM’s supercomputer would take 10,000 years to solve. Now IBM, of course, denies that, claiming it could be solved in two and a half days. Until IBM runs their computer with the same problem, we may never know, however it may be a moot point since Google’s quantum computer will only get faster, bigger and better. The reality of quantum computing may not make sense to a lot of non-physicists, but what does make sense is their ability to process information in a highly efficient and quick fashion. Already, Google is solving complex problems with an early version of a quantum computer– in a few years, they’ll be able to do much more. This begs the question, what is the whole point of a quantum computer and what can they do?
What Can Quantum Computers Do?
Well here’s the short answer– they could solve unanswered phenomena, help in new study and research, and maybe even help in the cure of cancer and other diseases. In a less theoretical field of possibilities are cyber-security and crypto-analysis. Quantum computers may never make it into our homes or pockets but that’s only because that’s not what they’re designed to do. Quantum computers are like an airplane and classical computers are the car. One is good for daily commutes of short to medium distances, while the other is perfect for quick travel over long distances. These machines are designed for supersonic flight and Google’s achievement last week was the Wright brothers’ first flight. Once they develop further, we will see all sorts of problems being solved, but there will also be problems caused.
It’s quite impressive that we have reached a point in our society where we can manipulate the fabric of our universe in a way to create a quantum computer. It’s even more impressive that one company has achieved the goal of quantum supremacy. What’s less impressive is that we’re playing with fire. Much like AI, quantum computers may be an innovation that leaves us worse off. In the right hands, we can solve decades-old mysteries about the universe, cancer, and mechanical phenomena. In the wrong hands, the destruction of our very basis of electronic existence may be widespread and universal. What’s for sure is quantum supremacy is a word we will be talking a lot about and hoping it’s all in a positive light.